John Lucas talking: "I've gotten 500 letters about it. It's really a rewarding feeling, to have all these people encouraging me. A lot of people have told me the problems they've had and how they've come back. They've talked about my courage in doing it. I did it because it's tough to live a lie."

The lie was that John Lucas was the same bundle of innocent enthusiasm who won our hearts at the University of Maryland. Six years later, after five seasons in pro basketball, after saying yes to too many people he would have said no to had he grown up while growing rich, after he almost ruined his life, Lucas wants to make it right again.

As a start, he told David DuPree of The Washington Post he had a cocaine problem. Lucas said the cocaine caused him to miss all those practices and games with the Golden State Warriors last season. The cocaine caused him to miss a Bullets game at Philadelphia this winter. It began, Lucas said, when he was depressed because his grandmother died, his old coach died, and the world was too much with him. Cocaine made it easier to get through the night.

As drug excuses go, Lucas' melancholy rationalizing makes no more sense than the others. Because Lucas can play basketball, he is quasi-famous. If he talks about cocaine, the quotes go on page one of the paper. What he was, though, was just another guy who would rather hide problems than deal with them. Lucas gets no sympathy here on that score. Of life's choices, Lucas made too many wrong ones. He hurt his game, his league, his team, his teammates and, mostly, himself.

Now he says he is done with the lie.

Now he says he wants help.

Now is the time to root for John Lucas.

The letters help. "Those letters come from people who care about me," Lucas said. "That's why I always wanted to be back in the D.C. area. This is a classy area. The people in the metropolitan area are classy to write to me. This is home to me, I feel part of D.C."

He has heard from players around the National Basketball Association in the 10 days since he admitted the cocaine problem and talked to NBA Commissioner Larry O'Brien, agreeing to take part in a drug rehabilition program. Lucas said Mitch Kupchak and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had been in touch, along with a dozen others.

"They all said the same thing," Lucas said. "They said, 'It took a lot of guts and we're behind you.' "

Public confirmation of a single NBA drug problem will reinforce the suspicion that drug abuse is widespread. Only last March, the league and the players' union set up a confidential drug-counseling service for players. No one will say if any players have used the service, but Lucas has said he is not the only player with a drug problem.

"You hear through the grapevine who's using cocaine," said Kevin Grevey, the Bullets' veteran guard, "but it's not a significant number of guys. You don't hear about the alcoholics or the wife-cheaters, but you hear about the serious drugs. It's blown out of proportion. There are only a few problems. John was one of those everyone heard about through the grapevine."

On Nov. 3, Lucas, in an extraordinary team meeting, admitted his drug problem to his teammates and coaches. He asked their help.

"I can't understand why anybody would admit it publicly," Grevey said. "I don't see any reason for having the league and fans and kids knowing about it. I assume John just has to get it off his chest, to come out of the closet with it, to get the pressure off. It's like he was saying, 'Now, if I have any more problems, I'll be out of the league.' "

Grevey is rooting. "It's great the way Luke's teammates, the fans, the Bullets management, even Commissioner O'Brien have rallied around him. Luke's such a super person. He wouldn't hurt anybody. I think he can handle it. I know he can. To last as long in this league as he has, you have to have discipline and he'll lick it."

The problem isn't basketball's alone. Drugs are part of the sports world, which is part of the real world.

Butch Beard, an assistant coach with the New York Knicks says the drug problem extends to other athletes, other sports. "These kids get $300,000 contracts and their damn agents don't help them do the right things," he said. "Look, John Lucas said a profound thing when he said he wasn't the only one with a problem."

Greg Ballard is rooting for Lucas. "It's a new beginning for him," said the Bullets' forward. "A lot of famous people have had a drug problem or an alcohol problem. Now that he's said it publicly, it's like Bernard King and Bob Welch (both admitted alcoholics). They got professional help and now he can, too. It's a start for him."

The week after Lucas talked about his drug problem, he wrecked his wife's car. Skidding on ice, he spun the car in a circle and crashed head-on into another car. The accident left him with lacerations above his left eye and on his right knee. It could have been worse.

"I'm lucky to be alive," Lucas said. "The car was a total loss."

He was leaving the locker room now. He smiled.

He said, "I'm glad January is coming to an end."

The next day he would see his parents, who came up from Durham, N.C. "I'm still their little boy, and they have to make sure I'm all right. Hey, my father wrote me a letter, too. He wrote it the time I missed our game in Philadelphia. He said, 'Let's not make asses out of ourselves.' "

Just that one sentence?

"Yep."

Lucas said thanks, then and left the room.